Brancusi’s all-seeing eyes and the American Reflexxx

The performance artist’s mirrored face accepts the projections of everyone in the audience. Some people think she’s a dude. Everyone thinks she’s hiding something. The chrome mask used by Alli Coates and Signe Pierce in American Reflexxx is arguably the single element that attracts the mob and incites the violence, and it reminds me of Brancusi’s portraits of women. He had a habit of deleting all the details and rendering women as faceless, generalized, Platonic, shiny, vanishing egg-heads, “getting all the forms into one form,” as he used to say.

Brancusi, Eileen Lane, 1923

“Not blind, but one big eyeball,” at once unseeing and all-seeing, the image of total blindness and perfect insight. Brancusi believed that a woman’s face, if obliterated, can symbolize the unitary, all-seeing (because pupilless) eye of the Creator. Smoothing out the details and polishing the mirror expressed for him something transcendent inherent in all humans. Brancusi practiced a form of Tibetan Buddhism and knew all about Mirror Mind. But his treatment of women’s faces arguably also expressed a swelling unconscious cultural hatred toward women. Art historian Carol Duncan points out that 20th-century sculptures of women demonstrate male control and the suppression of female subjectivity more emphatically than sculptures in the nineteenth century or before. “Their faces are more frequently concealed, blank or masklike (that is, when they are not put to sleep), and the artist manipulates their passive bodies with more liberty and “artistic” bravado than ever.” We see this suppression of subjectivity alive and well in American Reflexxx.

The mirror creeps people out, and it helps turn our protagonist into an impersonal, inhuman object for play. I imagine that if she were to take off the mask, just for a second, the madness around her would end, and the crowd would feel horrified and ashamed for following and assaulting this person. But she never takes it off, and the violence goes on and on. Mob moves as a single mind, held there transfixed by her facelessness. Members feel so entitled, so shameless, and so irrational, that they assault her in front of cameras and witnesses.

Can we identify with the mob? Can we forgive them? Women who have been othered, oppressed and socially diminished now have someone they can pick on, stand on top of, control and oppress. We don’t get to see the face of the woman who pushes the performance artist down, either. Does this help us keep a firm hold on our hatred for her?

As the oppressors cannot forgive the actor for wearing a mask, the actor appears to forgive her oppressors unconditionally. In a clever move, she keeps on dancing like it’s no big deal. We get to taste her freedom, her courage, her forgiveness. She is a chrome-colored Christ. Can we identify with the mob? Can we watch a hate crime and recognize the criminal as God in drag, as a Buddha challenging our ability to stay open towards “others” caught in ignorance?

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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